We arrived in London around 7:00 a.m. Heathrow Airport is HUGE, and we had our first taste of being strangers in a strange land. We weren’t in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. We were directed into a large room, along with perhaps 1,000 other passengers arriving from various parts of the world. We waited – and waited – while approximately six people checked passports and entry papers. No one was hurrying – in fact, they seemed almost purposefully slow – and the wait seemed interminable. In truth, by the time we had been in London for an hour, we had collected our luggage, been through the entry process, and were in the Arrival Hall looking for our tour company. Over here – at least at Heathrow – arriving passengers aren’t thrown out on the street after collecting luggage, nor do they have to hang out in the ticketing area while waiting to be picked up. There’s actually a large portion of the airport where you can be greeted and collected. Kind of a nice touch.
After a short wait, we boarded a shuttle which took us to our hotel. There are many shuttle companies, and passengers are delivered to various hotels around London, so we spent about an hour in the company of people we’ll never see again, talking about our various tours and home countries. It was fun and a nice start to our vacation.
When we arrived, exhausted and rumpled, at our hotel, it was only 9:00 a.m. We were NOT happy to be told that we would have to wait until 4:00 p.m. to claim our room! London is a large, intimidating city and we were in no mood to set out to look at the sights. Especially since we had no idea exactly where we were, how to find our way back if we got lost, and were just damned tired! So I found a very nice man whose title was “Customer Relations Manager,” pleaded age, exhaustion, and medical issues (Jim’s back, my knees), and within 10 minutes we were exploring our new digs.
The Thistle Marble Arch, where we stayed, is a very nice hotel. The hotel rooms in Europe are much smaller than what we’re used to in the US, but still very comfortable. We could actually open our windows and look out to the street below, and we had all the amenities except coffee pot in the room and washcloths! Fortunately, there was a McDonald’s close by, so it was my early morning routine to take my walk and pick up large cups of coffee before we even showered.
The buffet breakfast provided by the hotel was plentiful but not particularly good. Neither of us is fond of the way the English prepare food – beef is overcooked, fish tends to be greasy, and some of the meat is mysterious – but there was always plenty of fruit and croissants, along with unlimited coffee and juices, so we did just fine.
The hotel bar – The Glen Miller Bar – was a friendly and welcoming place for us to stop each evening for a glass or two of wine and hors d’oeuvres. The wait staff always remembered what we drank and we really loved the atmosphere. The bar has lots of Glen Miller memorabilia, and is named for him since it was the hotel where his military regiment stayed, and where he slept the night before he left on his last mission. It was nice to be greeted after each day’s sightseeing by a bartender who remembered that Jim drinks red and Cheryle drinks white. A pleasant place.
Saturday was our first day officially touring. We did mostly “drive-bys,” giving us just a taste of the city along with a good bit of history. Our tour guide, Denise, was very efficient, funny, and very knowledgeable about the area. Since she lives there, I guess that isn’t surprising!
We saw the gorgeous memorial that Queen Victoria built to Prince Albert, the Tower Bridge, walked along the River Thames, and then drove by the buildings of Parliament, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey, where we stopped for a while, but didn’t go inside. We then made our way to Buckingham Palace to see the Changing of the Guard. The crowds around the castle are unbelievable – London has a huge daytime population, and it increases to almost unimaginable proportions when the tourists are included! We gathered across from where the Guard musters and watched them march down the street to the castle. I think the only way to get close enough to the fence to see them inside the grounds would be to arrive first thing in the morning for the noon change. We finished touring shortly after noon, and Jim returned to the hotel and I took off on my own.
With some help from Denise, I was able to figure out the tube and made my way to the Victoria and Albert Museum (known locally as “The V & A”) where I immersed myself in 600 years of Britain’s history. It was marvelous and I wished many times that Jim had come with me, but we would never have left! After the museum, I took a short walk to Harrod’s. There’s really no way to describe this, the mother of all department stores! Each room is themed, the food court is surrounded by cuts of nearly every meat and seafood imaginable, and there are guards at every turn. I made a few purchases, spent some time figuring out which bus I needed, and climbed on one of London’s famous double-decker buses to make my way back to the hotel.
Our plan for Sunday was for Jim to visit the War Memorial Museum while I attended Mass at Westminster Abbey. We then had a planned tour to the Tower of London. Jim was impressed by the museum, and saw many things he had only read about before. I was thrilled, awed, and somewhat unbelieving that I was actually attending Mass at the Abbey – the Mother Church for Episcopalians!
All went as scheduled, and we met up at the tour office at 2:00. We were unable to start the tour on time because of a traffic accident that had roads blocked off. Our bus driver backed our bus up for about four blocks in order to make our way out of the jam. Throughout the trip, we were all amazed at the skillful drivers we had, getting us out of tight places, around hairpin turns, and down unimaginably narrow streets!
Our tour began with a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s was the first cathedral built to be Church of England; all the ones prior had been Roman Catholic cathedrals and were taken over by Henry VIII when he separated from Rome. St. Paul’s was also a sign of hope for Londoners during WWII, and there were people who were specially designated to put out any fires started by German bombs. Each day the news that “St. Paul’s is okay” gave heart to a city badly in need of good news.
After St. Paul’s we headed to the Tower of London. One of the things that has amazed us is that, although many of these sites are familiar from the news, books, television shows, etc., they have still been very different from what we expected. Although there is a specific building called “The Tower,” it is part of a much larger complex referred to as “The Tower of London.” We didn’t make it to the Crown Jewels – the line was very long – but we did get to peek into a lot of historical places, including the monument where Anne Boleyn is believed to have been beheaded. We were also treated to the spring mating ritual of a couple of ravens who were conducting their amorous activities in the middle of the lawn!
We left St. Paul’s on a boat, ending our day’s activities with a ride on the Thames River. A thoroughly enjoyable day!